Filmmaker John Anderson Shares Stories from His Career Filming His Rock and Roll Heroes


John Anderson is a well-known musician, producer, and filmmaker with a particular specialty: he directs and films documentary films about rock and roll legends. On March 30, the Levy Lecture crowd was treated to 90 minutes of storytelling, movie clips, and previously unseen photos and unheard musical excerpts as Mr. Anderson provided a big picture overview of his storied career. For anyone with even a passing interest in music from the past 50 years, it was a virtual joyride and sonic delight.


Mr. Anderson knows and has worked with many bold-faced names including Brian Wilson, a musical genius and the lead singer and songwriter for The Beach Boys; Sam Lay, a “blues living legend” described as “possibly the greatest drummer of all time;” the late Tiny Tim, a “musical prodigy with perfect pitch;” and Bob Dylan, among many others.


Born in California, raised in San Francisco and then in Philadelphia, Mr. Anderson moved to the Midwest when he enrolled in Northwestern University’s School of Communication to study radio, television, and film. While at Northwestern, he worked at the college radio station, recorded live shows at blues, rock, and folk clubs around Chicago, and even took some classes at the School of Music in Theory and Composition. He was in his element.


Mr. Anderson was writing and singing songs – country music at this point – and four months after graduation, he had a great audition and was offered a contract with the American Music Recording Company (AMRC). He was now a full-fledged recording artist. Within weeks, AMRC sent him to Cincinnati, where he worked with a session band and recorded two songs. AMRC pressed 300 copies of this LP and mailed them to 300 country radio stations across the country. “And that’s where my country music career died,” he said.


Despite this setback, he was not deterred or discouraged. He continued writing songs and in 1978 formed a rock band called The Cleaning Ladys. Mr. Anderson was the lead singer and guitar player; Art Collins played guitar, Scott Brewer (an Evanstonian) played bass; and Pete Ski contributed vocals and guitar.


Their first song, “Paraquat,” made it on the air on WXRT here in Chicago – and that was all the encouragement they needed. The band is still together 43 years later and now includes Daniel T. Stixx on drums.


Flash forward to 1984. Mr. Anderson was working in visual production at Post Effects in Chicago. He made a video for The Cleaning Ladys to promote their song, “She Won’t French Kiss.” The video won the Chicago Music Video of the Year and it played on MTV all over the world.


The next year, they created another video to promote “Creatures from Outer Space,” directed by Steve Price, which was nominated for an International Monitor Award. The Cleaning Ladys were up against well-known rock artists including YES and Don Henley. Like The Little Engine That Could, The Cleaning Ladys won. Their out-of-town bookings increased, he said, and the acclaim vaulted them into the “almost famous” category.


Being a musician and in a band for more than 40 years gives Mr. Anderson some insights about the people he films. He knows how to get along with people and what he describes as “knowing how the pieces fit together.”


He learned how to interview people over the six years he worked with and observed Bill Kurtis and Donna LaPietra prepare for and conduct their interviews. The keys for interview success: “Do your research and know your subject, show your knowledge and enthusiasm for their business, know when to stop talking and listen.”


In February 1998, an engineer and a producer who had worked with Mr. Anderson called to ask if he was interested in meeting Brian Wilson and possibly working on videos to go with Mr. Wilson’s comeback album. Mr. Anderson said he may be Brian Wilson’s biggest fan – of course he wanted to meet him.


The first meeting went well and Mr. Anderson was hired. Since then, he and producer Maggie Magee have made six films with Brian Wilson through Anderson Productions.


Mr. Anderson is not alone in believing Mr. Wilson is a musical genius. Many successful and famous musicians are in awe of Brian Wilson, Mr. Anderson said. They feel shy to approach him but speak of him with reverence and respect.


After spending hundreds of hours filming Mr. Wilson, Mr. Anderson has observed this phenomenon numerous times over the years. He also discussed the friendly rivalry that existed between the Beach Boys and the Beatles; each one viewed the other one as their primary competition.


One of the most exciting film clips Mr. Anderson shared was from June 15, 2000, at the National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame annual induction and awards dinner at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers in New York.


In addition to Mr. Wilson, James Taylor and James Brown were inductees. There was a lot of mingling and catching up with old friends. Billy Joel, a previous inductee, stopped by to chat with Mr. Wilson, who was the final songwriter to be inducted that evening.


The unannounced luminary chosen to make the presentation was none other than former Beatle Paul McCartney, whose heartfelt tribute articulated the love and respect he and others have for Mr. Wilson.


Mr. Anderson has more stories than he had time to fully share with the audience. He showed clips from several of his documentaries: Brian Wilson on Tour, Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story, Sam Lay in Bluesland, and In Glorious Smell-O-Vision! The True Story of the Godfather of Scented Cinema.


His current project is a film about the Manhattan Transfer, a band that has won 12 Grammys and weathered a lot over the decades. He said he hopes to finish the film by 2022 to coincide with the career retrospective planned for the band’s 50th anniversary year.


An encore of Mr. Anderson’s presentation, including all of the video clips mentioned here, is available on the Levy Foundation’s YouTube channel.


By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.